Why would you buy a lower-league club?

Barnsley celebrate promotion to the Championship

Barnsley were promoted to the Championship by winning their play-off final on Sunday

In 2016-17 each Premier League club is guaranteed a minimum of £170m over three years, even if they finish rock bottom. That’s enough to buy you 1.4bn bananas if you were so inclined.

It’s obvious, then, why people are interested in buying those teams. But what about the owners of clubs further down the league pyramid?

The prize money is so much lower, yet the outlay on wages and maintenance is still so great. Surely that’s a fool’s game?

But just imagine the potential earnings if that club have a great season or two, and football finance expert Rob Wilson from Sheffield Hallam University believes there are two main reasons for owning one.

“We look back historically at the 1960s and 1970s – we’d probably just have the one model with the local businessmen done good that wanted to do something with their local football team,” he told BBC Sport.

“We’ve moved into this era where people have started to see a good financial return on investment. So in the academic literature, we have split that model into those ‘trophy-asset owners’ and then private investors that are there to make some sort of financial gain from the football club.”

So how does this academic model look in the real world?

The local owner

Accrington Stanley has never been the most glamorous name in football, but in an old Lancashire mill town it provides more than just 90 minutes of entertainment on a Saturday afternoon.

“Accrington Stanley is split into three parts,” said owner Andy Holt, whose side lost in the League Two play-off semi-final to AFC Wimbledon.

“You have the football club, Accrington academy, where you have 120 kids learning to play football, and the Accrington Community Trust that helps 10,000 people a year with things like social isolation, mental and sexual health, does BTEC courses and all sorts.”


Accrington Stanley had the second-lowest average attendance in the regular League Two season, with 1,834

The community aspect of the football club was a major reason behind Holt’s takeover from Peter Marsden in October 2015, but buying a League Two club was never his plan.

Holt, who runs What More UK based in nearby Altham, was approached to sponsor the club earlier in the year. After turning them down eight times, he finally gave in before things spiralled.

“I went to the first match after becoming a sponsor, which was a friendly against Burnley and we were 3-0 up after about 10 minutes,” he said.

“But the club’s bar ran out of beer. I said ‘this is madness’, but they hadn’t paid the bills.

“I spoke to Peter Marsden and he’d got to the end of his tether. They couldn’t pay wages, but on the field and the community side of it was fantastic.”

After initially agreeing to paying the £100,000 wages for September, Holt spent the next month mulling over whether to help the club further.


Accrington lost in the League Two play-off semi-final to AFC Wimbledon

“I said I’d spend October looking at it and if I don’t do anything you can consider the £100,000 a gift. And if I do something at the end of October, I’ll have to do it or you won’t pay wages again. We’d got that far.

“During all this time, I’m getting to know the people, I’ve seen what it’s doing in the community and it’d be a real shame for it all to have ended.

“There was no doubt that backing would be costly and there’s no doubt I’ll be unlikely to see it ever again, which is why I wrote most of it off (£1.2m) to get it to a debt-free business.

“But that doesn’t matter. You get it back in other ways. We’ve got businesses in the community and the community have been good to us. The council’s been good to us, we use the roads more than anyone else.”

Despite losing “a long way past £1m” since taking over, Holt hopes the club can break even in the next year so that, in the long term, the town has something to hold onto.

“My aim is in 50 years’ time there’s still an Accrington Stanley,” he said. “If we’ve done that, then there’s umpteen thousands of kids and adults that we’ll have helped. It’s an old Lancashire mill town, and they lack investment.

“What I’m not trying to say is that football’s a good business investment. It’s about protecting community assets. As far as I’m concerned, Accrington Stanley is a beacon of hope for the town.”

The business ‘symbiosis’

Holt’s story of owning the club “by default”, in his own words, echoes that of another owner – Dale Vince of Forest Green.

Vince founded and runs Gloucestershire-based green energy company Ecotricity, and his passion for sustainability is clear for all to see.

But it was never his intention to run a football club, until he heard the local side, Forest Green, were struggling financially.


Forest Green lost in the National League promotion final to Grimsby Town in 2015-16

After agreeing to help them out because of their community role and the fact they were “a good bunch of people”, he was asked to be chairman after a few months by someone at the club.

“I said ‘I do not want to do that’, mostly because I’m really busy,” he said.

“But the choices were really to walk away and see it fold, or roll the sleeves up and take it on. I never set out to run a football club.”

Since then, the National League club, which lost in the promotion final this season, has allowed Vince to take his outlook on sustainability into football, a place “untouched by the world of environment messaging”.

That includes taking red meat off the menu at the club’s New Lawn ground, causing a reaction which, in the words of Vince, “was like walking into someone’s church and peeing on the pews”, before eventually becoming all-vegan.

“In some respects we’ve taken our approach in business, which is not a conventional approach, into the world of football and think we’ve improved it.

“And in some respects we’ve taken lessons from football back into business. We’ve had a bit of a cultural exchange.”


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Forest Green ‘will win league in 2017’

His motives may not be purely financial as specified in Wilson’s models, but Vince’s football club is now so much a part of his business interests, a new stadium is central to his £100m plans for a new sports and green technology business park in Gloucestershire.

“It’s a fully symbiotic part of our group of companies. It’s a platform for us to talk about our work in sustainability, the issues of energy, transport and food,” he said.

“We get a lot of media attention for that. That’s good for the club and good for the company, so there’s great symbiosis. We post-purchase-rationalised, where you buy something and then justify it to yourself, to a degree.

“To a degree it was pre the event as well. We thought if ‘we’re going to do this, let’s take our work into football’. But post the event we could see it was actually a very viable thing to do.”

The alternative way

Most Football League clubs may be in the hands of private investors, but four are owned by supporters trusts – Wycombe Wanderers, Portsmouth, AFC Wimbledon and Exeter.

With Wycombe, about 1,000 people pay nominal fees and they elect a Trust board, who then go on to elect a football board.

The Chairboys have been successful on the field since the Trust took control in 2012, even reaching the League Two play-off final in 2015.


Wycombe were winning the 2015 League Two play-off final in extra time until Joe Pigott’s 122nd-minute equaliser for Southend, who went on to win on penalties

But their board structure is where it gets interesting. The club’s chairman, Andrew Howard, owns one of the country’s largest ice cream companies and has no real emotional connection to Wycombe Wanderers, but was at a point in his life when he was looking for a challenge.

Interestingly, he feels that having a non-supporter as chairman helps a club with a squad too small to train 11 versus 11 or play reserve games.

“On the field the coaching staff are very keen on selecting a small group of lads that are committed and deliver,” said Howard. “There are examples through history where a small squad has a capability of delivering.

“Off the pitch, as chairman, while I have absolute respect and will do anything I can for Wycombe Wanderers and support the lads and everyone there, I’m not a Wycombe Wanderers fan.

“I don’t have a football drug that suddenly switches me over into crazed decisions. I do all my decisions from a commercial perspective.”


Gareth Ainsworth led Wycombe to a 13th-placed finish in League Two in 2015-16

While the Chairboys’ system appears to be working for the moment, Howard admits there is probably a ceiling the club can hit under the current system.

He continued: “It’s a very difficult model because what you haven’t got is a very large bank account behind it. But if it’s done properly I think it’s a sustainable model for the club and the fans for clubs up to a certain level.

“I think once you get to a certain level it would be very, very difficult to compete against what becomes private investment. Each league has a certain amount of money required to run a club and that is dictated mostly by player budget.

“It takes out the fluctuation of private ownership. What it can’t do is reach the highs of private ownership, like somebody walking in and giving an extra £2m to a club that’s turning over £3m-5m or whatever League Two turn over.

“But it can take the lows out, like somebody becoming disinterested or making the wrong decisions because you’ve got a collective running it.”

Tax doesn’t have to be taxing

Finally, there may be some in the lower leagues who may have another, totally legal motive for owning a club.

Pete Hackleton, tax partner at Saffery Champness, explains: “What can be quite popular is if you have a profitable company which is already paying tax in the UK or anywhere else on its profits and you were to buy a football club which is making losses, then the profitable company can sponsor the football club.

“You could be the main shirt sponsor, stand sponsor or whatever else. Let’s say the profitable company pays £1m a year for that privilege. The profitable company has an extra £1m for expenditure, so effectively it saves tax on that £1m, and the football club has an extra £1m of income, which, because it has other losses, probably doesn’t have to pay tax.

“But the other way for the owners is quite often if they’ve got a profitable company, they will acquire the football club underneath that company. Then what you can do is, when the football club makes a loss, you can surrender those losses to the profitable company.

“If that company is making £5m a year of profit, it would have £1m of tax to pay in the UK. But if the company is making a £5m profit and a football club underneath it making a £5m loss, you can just offset the two. Overall there’s no profit and no tax to pay.”

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